Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Discussion summary: Reading Gen 22 through Gen 23

We have almost unapologetically left the text behind this week, because the discussion has primarily focused on the rather broad and complex problem of typology, something suggested by Jacob's typological reading of Genesis 22 and several (round-about) confirmations of this in Genesis 23. The following paragraphs attempt only to establish the problems we have uncovered.

Thinking typology, it would seem, must begin with the question of "identity," that is, with the question of "typological structure." Two (broad, perhaps even unhelpful) typological structures have been (this week) proposed: type-antitype and type-archetype. Unfortunately, however, the relation/difference between these two proposed structures has not yet been made clear. What is ultimately at issue (and, for now, undecided) is what it is that the type ties typologically to.

Another difficulty in thinking typological structure: the question has been raised whether a typological structure is something "in itself" or something "for us," whether the structure is something inherent in what is tied together typological or whether the structure is something given to us (in either case, typology appears not to be something we impose).

In the course of discussion, it has been suggested that the structure of the sign and/or the play of differences might provide a starting point--or at least serve as a foil--for thinking about typological structure. This suggestion has underscored the importance of the question of temporality (roughly--perhaps sloppily--equated here with causality) in thinking typological structure. At the very least, it is clear that typology in some sense opposes temporality/causality (though even this might be too strong). The most progress has perhaps been made here, though the discussion is, for now, rather embryonic.

Finally, the question of how family is to fit into all of this has been raised, and, for the most part, left unanswered.

I would like to see discussion continue on this subject, perhaps best under this summary (if it genuinely recasts the important issues here).

Monday, March 12, 2007

Reading Genesis 22 in light of Genesis 23

22:20 leaves the climax of the Abraham story behind, but it does so by returning to the words of 22:1, the beginning of the climax: "And it came to pass after these things" (there is the slightest difference between the two phrases in the Hebrew, but I'm not convinced it's significant). Two points might be made about the Hebrew terms here. First, the word translated "things" should not be read as reducing the content of chapter 22 in any way: the word (dbrym) has reference to the richness of encounter, usually denotes language (in the full sense of sprachen rather than the limited sense of sagen, if we can follow Heidegger here), and might even have etymological ties to the Holy of Holies (dbr). Second, the word translated "after" is worth mentioning. The Hebrew here (`hr) certainly can mean after or behind, but it also comes out in Hebrew in words like "foreigner," "stranger," and even "excommunication." I only bring this up to highlight something in Hebrew thinking: an event is, in the OT, never fixed, but always being surprised by the Other, the event that is still to come.

In short, if Genesis 22 overwhelms us (as 22:1 suggests we should be), the events that follow the Akedah are--we are being warned--just as overwhelmingly other. What I'd like to do this week, then, is think Genesis 22 through the implied categories of Genesis 23: if Genesis 23 somehow suggests that the Akedah is not climactic, is not a fixed event, how does it recast the Akedah and especially, then, all of our thinking about these four guiding questions?

Initial thoughts, then...

Obviously, the focus of chapter 23 is the death of Sarah and Abraham's purchase of the cave of Machpelah. This is, of course, introduced with an announcement of several births (and, with one's anticipation of chapter 24, the possibility of further births through Isaac). And it is no surprise, I suppose, to find birth and death at the heart of the story that follows the Akedah.

Interestingly, this story of death is characterized, as Isaac's is--at least in Jim's reading--by a separation: Abraham is in Beer-sheba when Sarah dies in Hebron (just as Abraham and Isaac are only a collective in Gen 22). Moreover, it is Sarah's death that finally leads to Abraham's first acquisition of land and, hence, the first fulfillment of the promise of that land (a point highlighted by Abraham's mention of his nomadic lifestyle to the sons of Heth). And again, at the very heart of the story in chapter 23, the theme of substitutability or exchangeability is introduced: the ram for Isaac, money for land.

In fact, we cannot overlook the role the economic plays in this chapter. Is Abraham appropriating Sarah's death somehow? He pays for specifically with silver, with the treasures of the earth: land for land. How should this be read? Is there a moment of totality/totalization here? Or is it better to read here a moment of excess? In fact, one must ultimately admit that there is a rather difficult intertwining of the excessive and the economic at play in this transaction (one to be mirrored later with the threshingfloor of Araunah the Jebusite... the site of the temple): there is a gift to be given, but Abraham refuses to allow it to be given, cancels the gift, but only in that he desires also to give a gift, which, because it precisely counters a gift, is no gift whatsoever. And several witnesses confirm all of this. What is at play here?

If one reads into all of this the cancellation of the excessive in the name of economics, can it be read also as the economizing (the totalizing) of the gift of the land, and even of the gift of (Sarah's) death? And yet Abraham mourns....

Not so initial thoughts...

So, Robert says, "Jim's paper takes place-holding as anti-community, but I don't think he means to rule out typological meaning, and I think typological father-son meanings are particularly prevalent and somewhat distinctive in Mormon scripture." I'd like here to take up this question of typology and place-holding, but I'm not finding that I can yet articulate my thoughts very well. Let me do this instead:

Gen 22 gives us the typological (perhaps 23 as well), and Gen 23 gives us the economic/place-holding (perhaps 22 as well). How do these articulate all four questions? It seems to me that even to ask whether Abraham is a model of fidelity is to ask a question about typology. And it seems to me that even to ask what Abraham's story can tell us about theology is already to assume the possibility of a "typological theology." And it is certainly clear that there is a kind of typological structure at work in the family, which is confirmed profoundly by the intersection between Gen 22 and Jacob's typological reading. And the Mormon scriptures have more to contribute about typological thinking than perhaps anything else, or so I am increasingly convinced.

Hence, how are we to think about typology here? How are we to think typology in terms of Gen 22? How are we to recognize the space between place-holding and typology? In short, here is the discussion question:

What is typology, and what is its significance for an LDS reading of Abraham as the faithful theologian and father?


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Genesis 22

Well, I feel wholly inadequate to gloss or even frame this chapter in any satisfactory way (particularly since I've been out of play for the last few weeks, for which I apologize). This is, after all, the very threshhold of abattoir.

But a very few thoughts, merely by way of originating the thread, after which I invite your own observations, related or un-. So I was struck from the very beginning by the phrase with which the Lord and his messengers refer to Isaac: "your son, your only one." Robert Alter reproduces in the notes the Midrashic expansion of the phrase, in which Abraham objects that he has two sons, both of whom he loves, and the Lord, clause by clause, tightens the vice on Isaac. It occurs to me, then, that the chapter narrates a double slaughter, in which the Lord requires Abraham to relinquish both of his sons. Even at the moment of reprieve, in the words of grace, "Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me"----even at this moment of supreme joy, Ishmael's absence (from the covenant) is underscored.

To broach a Mormon reading for a moment, in which Abraham's sacrifice of his "only son" is a type of God's sacrifice of his "only begotten son," the atonement itself, with its triumphant ending ascension of the Son, contains within it the exclusion of some other of God's sons. Mormon doctrines of moral agency and in particular our myth of the council and war in heaven emphasize the loss and risk an grief inherent in the plan centered on a sacrifice of the One for the many.

Sight and hearing are thematized (what an awful word) throughout the chapter, as well, in ways that recall the story of Ishmael in Genesis 16. I invite your thoughts on this recurring synesthetic theme: are seeing and hearing used to represent two different kinds of relationships to God?

Finally, although this does not speak directly to our philosophical purposes in this seminar, a few phrases of poetry in an otherwise starkly economical narrative (with credit to Alter, whose rendering I used): "he split wood for the offering" (v 3); "Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar" (v 4); "And the two of them went together" (v 9); "And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns" (v 13).

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Summary: Genesis 20-21

We are reading a story of creation, but the story of creation is also a story of separation / cutting: Adam and Eve from God, Abraham from his family, Abraham and Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac.

The "good" separations involve covenant; the others do not.

The creation of the world will result in life between separated beings; it will result in covenant because covenant brings separated beings together without annihilating one of its parties.
  • Covenant is a response in which one gives voice to the person with whom one is covenanting.
  • Covenant is a response to pre-existing graciousness.
  • Covenant is an affirmation of the concerns of the other.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Genesis 20-21


I find chapter 20 not only troubling, but mysterious; I'm not sure what to make of it. So let me deal with it by pointing to things in it that interested me and by raising questions.

Verse 1 of the chapter tells us that Abraham "journeyed from thence," but there is no referent for "thence" (shm): we don't know where Abraham is journeying from, but the text assumes that we do. Of course this is evidence of the redaction process, but if we take it as part of the text, as part of a whole, we can ask what it means in that text. What are we to make of the fact that we do not know where Abraham has come from when this story begins? Or does it begin from a situation, Abraham's situation in comparison to Lot's rather than from a place?

If we think broadly about the two stories and see the way in which each shows us a different kind of hospitable life, perhaps we can read this as saying that we see Abraham, who knows how to be hospitable, moving into potentially hostile company. He is entering a home where he cannot be assured of hospitality. That suggests that this chapter is about God's protection of Abraham when hospitality fails.

It is impossible to overlook the parallel between the story of this chapter and the story in Genesis 12:9-20. Verse 1 immediately makes the connection to the story in chapter 12 by using "journeyed" and "dwelled," translations of the same Hebrew verbs used at the beginning of the earlier story. The redactor wants us to know that he sees these stories as parallel; he is conscious of the existence of two stories and includes them both.

What might we get from comparing and contrasting the two stories?

  • There, Abraham went all the way into Egypt. Here, he goes to the border of Canaan, but not into Egypt.
  • There Sarai becomes became part of the royal harem. Here she doesn't get that far.
  • There Abram explains the political reason for referring to Sarai as his sister. Here he explains why calling Sarah his sister wasn't a lie.
  • In chapter 12, we don't know how the Pharaoh came to know that Sarai was Abram's wife. In this chapter, the Lord appears to Abimelech in a dream to tell him.
  • The Pharaoh puts all of the blame on Abram. Abimelech accepts some of the blame.
  • The Pharaoh immediately expelled Abram from Egypt. Abimelech allows him to choose the land he wishes.
  • The Pharaoh is concerned with what has happened to him (12:18). Abimelech is concerned with what Abraham may have done to his nation.
  • The earlier story is a foreshadowing of Israel's entrance, sojourn, and exodus from Egypt. Is this one also?

Abimelech's plea in verse 4, "Wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?" is very much like Abraham's plea for Sodom in Genesis 18:30-32.

Verse 7 is the only occurrence in Genesis of the word nabi, "prophet": God identifies Abraham as a prophet. (The word is used very sparingly in the Pentateuch, 12 times, with 8 of those times in Deuteronomy.) It strikes me as odd that it is important to this strange story that Abraham is a prophet.

An overall oddity is that in this chapter we see Abraham, who has already been shown to be a mighty warrior who can defeat multiple kings (chapter 14), afraid of one king, Abimelech—a king whom, as Word Biblical Commentary points out, Abraham has misjudged (2:72). Compare what God says about Abimelech in verse 6 with what Abraham thought about the country in verse 11.

And why does Abraham lie in verse 13 about using this ruse with Sarah "at every place where we shall come"? He's only done it once before.

In summary, Word Biblical Commentary is helpful once again: "This incident makes us realize that Abraham is not such a saint as we might have concluded from chap. 18, nor were all the inhabitants of Canaan so depraved as those who lived in Sodom" (2:75).


With chapter 21, we enter into more familiar territory, though that isn't to say that there are no difficulties.

The first story in the chapter is that of Isaac's birth and Ishmael's expulsion, and I think we have to read those two stories together: the birth of the covenant child means the expulsion of the child of the handmaiden. Can we think past twentieth-century sensibilities to see what the point is, and then, having done so, can we bring that point back in a way acceptable to our sensibilities?

Without trying to justify Sarah's anger or Abraham's complicity (nor deciding ahead of time that I understand that anger and complicity well enough to know what it means), one thing I see here is that covenant and promise are not the same. Verses 17-18 tell us that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, repeating the promise of Genesis 17:20: "I will make him a great nation." However, Genesis 17:21 adds: "But my covenant will I establish with Isaac." Though the promise of the covenant is that Abraham will be a great nation, that promise is not the same as the covenant. For Ishmael and Isaac each receives that same promise, but only Isaac receives the covenant.

So what is the covenant of Abraham? Is it "I will bless thee"? That seems to be the promise. Is it "Thou shalt be a blessing"? Isn't God saying that to be covenanted is to be blessed to be a blessing? Merely being blessed (Ishmael) is not enough and must be sent away. Being blessed to be a blessing remains.

The chapter ends with the covenant between Abimelech and Abraham. Is that to set up a contrast with the covenant that is to come in the next chapter, not only in the two covenants themselves, but the way in which they are established: Abraham offers sheep and oxen to Abimelech; he offers his son to God.